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Veterans Choice Medical Program Troubled From Start

May 17, 2016 1:20 p.m.


Steve Walsh, General Assignment Reporter

Related Story: Veterans Choice Medical Program Troubled From Start


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

Joining be now is Steve Walsh. This is a story with national implications. You set the ball rolling on the investigation. Tell us how did you uncover the story?
I did set the ball rolling, KPBS is part of this project called back at base. It's a consortium of stations that work within the -- network. I was doing work with veterans choice as it was rolling out. It really wasn't until I had come to San Diego that I realized, I went to a ribbon-cutting for a call center that's in the peace. I didn't realize there were contractors that were rolling out this program. It was actually the VA. We started a heavy -- to have a conversation. We started looking at this, in November, making first initial calls and it grew from there.
In your story, we heard from one veteran who was angry about not getting an appointment for months. Did you find there were problems like that with tri-West in San Diego?
Yes we have heard from vets and we've heard from groups as well not just in San Diego, but around the country. It was hard to get data. That was one of the things that was challenging. We would get bits and pieces from the VA, they would cover certain time frames and we would get it to pieces from the companies. It was hard to compare apples to apples, it was hard to create a complete picture. There was a lot of evidence from people that were upset. What were the major problems?
There are long wait times, there aren't enough doctors, there's a lot of problems with the VA itself where it takes a long time to get these authorizations to the contractor or to get all the data back. In the meantime, people end up sending the veteran to collection. They held the veteran for services that are supposed to be paid for by the government. That created a whole other level of issues.
Trying to put together a private network and 90 days, just seems ridiculous. Didn't anyone say, wait a minute let's do this right.
That is the problem. Most people would see that in major issue with the rollout. Congress will say that the VA was working on it, before, this wasn't their first grader -- rodeo. Trying to wrote out a big program and 90 days created a tremendous amount of strain. There's a lot of compare Smith -- comparison to tri-care, that system was set up and took several years. Trying to do this in 90 days, it seems like that was a bad idea.
The red flag should of been the number of private tractors, who said no as you reported.
The 90 days really did scare off most of the big companies like Humana and well point. They were all in the room, the VA made the presentation, they made a stab at trying to do this under the usual bidding process. They decided, they couldn't get enough people to bite, then time ran out and they went with China's -- try not -- try not.
Has the experience of veterans trying to access program?
In Maine, the Congressional delegation asked for help that -- HealthNet to be removed. There were complaints in Montana, a senator has one of the bills, he has been credibly critical.
In your report, you say Congress is in the MIDI -- middle of overhauling the program.
They're going to do what they're going to do. Just because the VA has come up with a plan, it doesn't mean everyone will follow suit. They want the customer service element, there is talk that that whole notion of putting the contractor between the Dr. and the patient just hasn't worked well. There's a lot of talk of moving that back into the VA. The VA has a lot of its own problems. They are slow to pay contractors, they are slow to pay medical bills. A lot of the initiative that's been in legislation talks about modernizing those systems.
As I said, NPR is handling this is a multipart investigation. We will be hearing about it in the days and weeks to come. I've been speaking with Steve Walsh. Thank you so much.
Thanks Maureen.
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